Turning back time

http://www.timesargus.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070408/FEATURES07/704080323/1016/FEATURES07 Turning back time April 8, 2007 By Patrick Timothy Mullikin Correspondent Martin Bryan holds a rare RCA Victrola Heritage Series vinyl record from the early 1900s in his massive collection of old records stored in the basement of Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury. Photo: Photo by Stefan Hard A 4-1/2-inch, half-ounce CD can hold up to 80 minutes of crystal-clear sound. A 10-inch, half-pound 78-rpm record, on the other hand, holds about 2-1/2 minutes of music that is accompanied by pops, skips and grinding surface noise that sounds as if bacon is frying in the background. What kind of person would be drawn to collecting these relics? “There’s the straggly haired 25-year-old from Burlington who comes in with his mother. There’s the bow-tie type of guy. There are the people who have a Victrola and a room dedicated to the era,” says Jacob Grossi, 33, owner of Riverwalk Records in Montpelier. He deals in used LPs and occasionally dabbles in 78s. Sandy Thurston, who sells used records as the owner of the Barre shop Exile on Main Street, is a bit more diplomatic. “They tend to be a little older. Lots of times they are completists; they want everything by that particular artist.” Whatever their age or personality, these collectors are all chasing an artifact that had its heyday during the first half of the previous century. As a medium for recorded music the 78-rpm record has had the longest life span – roughly from the late 1800s to the late 1950s. It was the child of the Edison cylinder and parent to the 33 1/3-rpm vinyl LP and 45, all three of which coexisted for a time during the 1950s. Countless millions of 78s were mass produced over the years. “I’d say there are 5 (million) to 10 million 78s out there. Might be more than that,” says John Tefteller, owner of World’s Rarest Records in Grants Pass, Ore. Many early ones — from the teens, ’20s and ’30s — along with rock ‘n’ roll recordings from the ’50s, have been snatched up by collectors, leaving a glut of ’40s big band-era recordings, which have little value. During its half-century reign, the 78 was played on windup phonographs, electric turntables and jukeboxes around the world. Now its sound is a novelty appreciated by a few. q q q In the catacomb-like basement of Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury are close to 80,000 records, the bulk of Martin Bryan’s collection of more than 100,000. Bryan, 61, a longtime employee of the arts group, began bringing them to store there 20 years ago – with the board of directors’ blessing, he says. The lucky discs are filed vertically (the correct way to store records) on heavy shelving. Others tower precariously in stacks. Many are stuffed into milk crates and cardboard boxes. Handfuls sit directly on the floor, in the way like lazy dogs. There are a few casualties here and there: one half of a record is tacked to the wall; several look like someone’s taken a bite from them. Unlike the vinyl LP, the shellac-based 78 is inflexible and brittle. If dropped, it will chip or shatter. Bryan’s collection began when he was a 9-year-old growing up outside Springfield, Mass. “One day my grandmother came over with a 78. I remember her saying, ‘Here’s a record I think you should have.’ It was a 1915 or 1916 recording of Alma Gluck singing ‘My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean.'” It was his first “grown-up” record. “I played it over and over, probably 10 times a day,” he recalls. Bryan was soon scouring thrift shops for more. “My mother was somewhat encouraging. My father thought: ‘What is this kid getting into?'” Perhaps Robert Crumb explains it best, in his 1979 cartoon strip “Why I’m Neurotic About My Record Collection”: “It’s a sickness, really! And let’s be honest, it’s more than just a love of music. … It’s collecting mania. The thrill of possession! The owning of a fetish! The mysterious attraction of the series syndrome!!! Oboy! I got all three of the Big Chief Henry’s Indian String Band records!” For his part, Bryan recognizes the roots of the collecting mentality: “There’s got to be an obsession there,” he says with a laugh. “The record has to be in the right sleeve. If it’s a Victor record it can’t go in a Columbia sleeve.” q q q That obsession can lead a collector down an esoteric path. Doug Scott was a high school junior in the 1950s when his parents gave him a portable record player. “I remember looking in the Montgomery Ward catalog right after Christmas, and there were three 10-inch LPs for sale — two by Gene Autry and one by the Sons of the Pioneers.” That was the beginning of a lifelong pursuit for the Barre man. Scott, 69, now has some 300 different Sons of the Pioneers 78s in his collection, along with 800 others by artists like Bob Wills, Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb and Jimmy Rodgers. “You get involved in something like this and you want everything,” he says. The last time he listened to a 78 on the turntable was a few months back. “I had this song running through my mind, ‘Brush Those Tears From Your Eyes’ by Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage, and I knew I had that on 78. I got that out and played it. Oh, it sounded good.” That sound – the scratches and all – is part of the 78 experience. “The reason I collect 78s is because they sound different,” says John Miller, 57, of Montpelier, who has around 500. “They have a completely unique — what would you call it? — astral sound. Surface noise is part of that sound. The reason I think that sound is so unique is that it actually puts you into the feedback loop of the artist who recorded the 78.” For collector Bill Zucca of Rochester, his Victrola — with its ornate tone arm, hand crank and dark wood cabinet — is a time machine. “I do live in the past, in a time that I never experienced,” he says. “I can easily close my eyes and transport myself to another period of time just by sitting in my parlor.” His collection of 10,000 records takes him back to the days of speak-easies and flappers. Zucca, 55, who grew up in Orlando, Fla., first heard 1920s jazz one summer when he worked as a teen at the nearby Annie Russell Theater and has been hooked ever since. Shortly thereafter came the whistling incident. “I was with a group of my friends, and I started whistling one of my favorite records: (1928’s) “You Took Advantage Of Me” by Miff Mole and His Little Molers. One of my friends had said to the group: ‘Everybody be quiet. Bill’s whistling some jazz thing.’ And I looked over, and they were all listening. It was embarrassing.” While his musical taste might make him stand out, there was a time when everyone would have been whistling along to a 78. Their ubiquity in the 1930s and ’40s means that the country is awash in more old records than collectors could ever want. So the flip side of acquiring 78s is disposal, says Miller. “Somebody will say: ‘I hear you’re interested in 78s. When I get there, there are boxes and boxes of 78s. The deal is you’ve got to take them all. What are you going to do with them? I have no idea.” When he first started collecting, Miller would occasionally accept those boxes of rejects in hopes of finding something he would want, but no more. “I have taken them to the dump,” he says. “I don’t feel great about that, but nobody wants them. A Columbia red-label Dinah Shore?” Still, enough people want to listen to some of these relics to keep a handful of Victrola repairmen in business in the United States. One of them is Rod Lauman, 49. His St. Johnsbury repair shop is filled with old windup players, some for sale, some being repaired, their metal entrails strewn about his workbench. Lauman has been repairing windup players since 1993, and collecting 78s as well. He has about 6,000 scattered about his shop/apartment. He, too, talks about how listening to 78s takes him back to another era. Playing the discs on one of his machines becomes an event, he says. There’s the constant need to crank the machine, and you can forget about a six-disc changer: About every 2-1/2 minutes the listener will need to put on another record. “You can’t be doing something else,” he says as he lowers the heavy tone arm onto a 1929 recording of “Mean to Me” by Sid Garry, whose voice wafts above the sizzle of frying bacon: Sweetheart I love you Think the world of you But I’m afraid You don’t care for me … Photo by Jon Olender A 78-rpm record plays on Bill Zucca’s antique phonograph at his home in Rochester. Photo by Jon Olender Records from the labels Columbia, Okeh, Victor, Perfect and Pathe’ are part of Bill Zucca’s collection of 78s at his home in Rochester. Photo by Jon Olender Record collector Bill Zucca looks through his extensive collection of 78s at his home in Rochester.

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